Self-serve car washes continue to be an excellent investment in the current market, thanks to low barriers of entry and relatively minor initial capital investment. They can be incredibly productive and profitable, provided the owner/operator is committed to maintaining the business. The importance of effective maintenance is integral to any level of success in the business and can be what makes or breaks your self-serve wash.
Everyday parts rack.
A single self-serve bay can be an excellent income producer — which means losing that bay for a day can be costly. According to a recent industry survey compiling statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and other reporting agencies1, the average self-serve bay is worth in the range of $1,500 in gross revenue per month over a year. Much of that revenue is centered around peak times of the year, and even peak times of the week. Your wash may see most of that clustered into a busy April, where you‘ll make that revenue in a single weekend.
Imagine losing multiple bays, and increasing that loss of revenue two, three, or even four times. This doesn’t include the goodwill cost or the optics of it, as customers are unlikely to keep returning to a wash with closed bays, long lines, and unreliable machinery. Harry Arseniu, owner of Logan’s Car Wash and South Main Street Car Wash, notes “It just doesn’t provide a good appearance when a bay is down.” This is where maintenance comes into play.
PREVENTATIVE MAINTENANCE VERSUS REACTIVE MAINTENANCE
The cost of preventative maintenance is often looked at as a cost that needs to be decreased. It’s a cost that will pop up on your books again and again, and you’ll often be wondering how you can reduce it. However, preventative maintenance is crucial to regular operations — proper preventative maintenance can reduce the likelihood of reactive maintenance and repairs down the line. Can you afford to lose a bay for days?
Preventative maintenance can be done on your schedule and fit the business cycles of your wash.
It can be scheduled ahead of time, on daily, weekly, monthly, and annual intervals, and can be outsourced appropriately if needed. You can stock the parts if inexpensive, or schedule an order and shipment at general freight pricing.
Maintenance room board.
Says Arseniu, “There is a seasonal shift in business, and I focus on certain maintenance points at different seasons.” For him, this means focusing on hoses and brushes in the winter months, while vacuums and vending often see increased usage in warmer times. Noticing these patterns can help to figure out your preventative scheduling.
Reactive maintenance is just a pleasant way of saying repairs. Not only do these bring your wash down at unpredictable times — potentially your busiest times — they also call for immediate response. This could mean overnighting parts, driving to a distributor where you’ll be paying a higher mark-up, and calling around for a repairman who can respond immediately, albeit at an emergency price.
The value of proper maintenance comes down to the opportunity costs of maintenance versus repairs.
UNDERSTANDING OPPORTUNITY COST
The best way to think about preventative maintenance versus repairs is to consider opportunity cost. This is the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. Consider two options stemming from the same equipment — a pump failure.
When you maintain your pump, replacing plungers at regular intervals or when you start to see wear, you can choose when you take down the pump to replace the plungers. You can schedule a time when your wash is generally slow, so you only miss out on a handful of sales. It’s a quick process, and you can do it yourself, so it may only be a few hours. You’ll already have the spare plungers on hand. You might be looking at $300 - $400 in parts and labor, $25 - $30 of lost sales, plus a few months of possible service life. At most, the opportunity cost here is around $450.
The other option is that, four months after you should have replaced the plungers, you see water leakage from under the manifold, water in the crankcase, packing failure, and your pump is now limping along. You don’t have the parts on hand, because you figured you’d push your luck, which means buying them at a premium from a local distributor. At least this keeps your downtime minimal — you only lose a bay for an entire day. Your distributor has the parts on hand, and it’s not bad enough to need a specialist this time. It’s a busy weekend though, and you’re losing out on a bay for an entire day.
You’ve saved that service life, and gotten that $40 worth of service time out of the plungers, but at what cost? Now you’re looking at the potential of $150 - $300 in lost business. An upcharge on parts and labor for same-day pick-up and emergency overtime from your maintenance guy, pushing costs to $800 for the fix and to clear the water in the crankcase and replace the packing. Your opportunity cost here? Almost $1,000 or more.
You can insert numbers as needed to suit your specific operation, but the result will remain the same: the opportunity cost of pushing your luck is almost never worth it.
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Establishing an effective maintenance checklist is the key to keeping your self-serve wash up and running. A thorough checklist will feature schedules, procedures, parts lists, and more in an accessible format.
Large, multi-site operations and industry veterans have a leg up in maintenance — they’ve been around and have been through the wringer. They have established punch lists, they know their equipment, and they’ve utilized collected data to find the right stock levels, training needs, and schedules to deal with their equipment and location specifics.
For new operators and smaller operations, there’s a learning curve, albeit one that can be shortened using the proper resources. The best starting point is right there with every piece of equipment you buy — manufacturers’ recommendations should be the focus when you’re getting your feet wet. Take the time to read manuals, watch manufacturers’ videos online, check out resource pages on the web, and attend in-person classes. Arseniu mentioned that, starting out, he faced maintenance questions, and was fortunate enough to have the previous owner of the wash on hand to get him on the right path.
How you do all this is up to you. Some operators like the traditional methods, with hard copies of paperwork, desktop organizers, and wall calendars centrally located in their offices. It’s common to see equipment rooms where manuals and schedules are kept in vinyl envelopes. Particularly impressive and convenient are the press-on envelopes that can be attached to the tanks, walls, and panels for fast, easy access.
Others prefer digitized documents and tracking spreadsheets with notes about specific concerns, upcoming work to do, and cross references. Smartphone and tablet apps are yet another newer method that can be used — there are dozens of maintenance apps and programs available, such as general work order apps like Upkeep, industry-specific programs like OPEn from Wash.Systems, or simply a well-organized Google Docs spreadsheet and library.
No matter how you go about it, the key is to provide accurate information, accessible tools, and to be crystal clear in expectations. The next step is to make sure you keep your equipment room stocked with the parts needed to tackle both scheduled maintenance and emergency repairs without running short.
STOCKING UP ON THE ESSENTIALS
When you’re considering the essentials to keep your wash up and running, there are a few points to keep in mind:
Can you afford to keep stock on hand?
Every car wash business wants to run as lean as possible — tying up capital in parts and equipment that may just sit idle for months is not ideal. That’s capital that could be used for marketing, upgrades, or simply earning interest and cushioning the accounts for rainy days. Some parts you just can’t afford to keep on hand, like large pumps. But fittings that cost a few cents, or seals that don’t take up much room? As Arseniu notes, “Anything that’s a wear item makes sense to have at least one in stock, because at some point it will just wear out.” Small-price-tag, constant-use parts should never be run dry.
Can you afford to not keep stock on hand?
Keeping an extra high-temp pump on hand simply isn’t affordable for some self-serve operators. That being said, what parts can bring your entire operation to a grinding halt if they fail? It’s one thing to lose a bay or two, but if you have a centralized system, some parts can lock down your entire operation at once. Crucial maintenance parts need to be kept in your equipment room when possible. Instead of an entire pump, keep the necessary smaller repair kits and equipment on hand.
Keeping those points in mind, here’s a list of parts that are key to have on hand, day in and day out: • Vacuum Motors • Vacuum Repair Kits • Vacuum Hoses, Nozzle, and Cuffs • Air Pumps • High Pressure Pumps • Pump Repair Kits • Pump Oil • Rebuild Kits • Solenoids • Timers and Switches • Reusable Ends • Belts • Spray Guns and Gun Wands • Spray Tips and Nozzles • Foam Brush Heads • Foam Brush Handles • Light Bulbs • Check Valves and Swivels • Regulators and Unloaders • Gauges and Plugs • Seals and O-rings • Fittings • Decals for vacuums, vending, and in-bay equipment • General hardware, including nuts, bolts, screws, etc.
As Arseniu says, “Anything in the bay that the customer touches should have at least one backup in stock.” For him, in addition to the parts mentioned above, this includes backup coin and bill acceptors, hoppers, bill validators, knobs for machinery, and more.
When you use a part, make sure to put it on your order list right away — keeping your stock at or above par means that you can tackle emergencies that crop up while still performing the regularly scheduled maintenance.
By understanding the need for maintenance, the costs of preventative maintenance over reactive maintenance, the importance of creating and holding to a schedule, and the parts and equipment needs of your set-up, you can set your wash up for success!